Right in the midst of a rebuild, the run defense of the current Pittsburgh Steelers made significant strides down the home stretch of the 2014 season. Seemingly, this coincided with the entrance of rookie defensive end, Stephon Tuitt, into the starting lineup, and the future looks bright for him. Behemoth rookie defensive tackle, Daniel McCullers, also got more and more playing time as the season progressed and could be the team’s nose tackle of the future. Coupled with standout Cameron Heyward, the team could have it’s bookends at defensive end as well as the centerpiece for it’s 3-4 defensive line of the future.
It remains to be seen whether they will ever come close to being as formidable as Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel or Kimo von Oelhoffen, but the front line appears set. It’s on the back end in the secondary where things are bleak, and the outside linebacker spots don’t offer much hope either, although the jury is still out on 2013 first-rounder, Jarvis Jones.
“There comes a time with every team in the league where you have to almost back up and get new defenses and try to rebuild it,” Tom Donahoe, the director of football operations for Pittsburgh until 2000, told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.
The Steelers aren’t the only team that’s faced with this task, although their situation is magnified due to the importance the previous wave of defenders meant to them, as it was a major factor in them capturing 2 Super Bowl titles. Bill Cowher had a major hand in constructing the defense the current regime is looking to rebuild, and if anyone knows the recipe for success when it relates to Pittsburgh’s brand of football, it’s Cowher. With the help of Donahoe and Kevin Colbert, they helped set the table for a defense that would rank #1 in the league five times, and in the top five, nine times, from 2001 through 2011.
“You’d like to upgrade the secondary and find a pass-rusher,” Cowher told Bouchette. “It comes down to those two things. If they can get those two things, they’re not that far away from being a good team.”
This draft is rich in both positions, but expecting the 2015 draft by itself to be the saving grace may be asking a bit much. The way they gradually built up their defense in the past was very similar, as it wasn’t done overnight. Two of their stalwarts, Smith and Joey Porter were plucked via the 1999 draft, Hampton in 2001, Larry Foote and Keisel in 2002 and Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor in 2003. Sprinkle in a dash of James Farrior and Ryan Clark, a hint of undrafted pick-ups like Chris Hoke and James Harrison and you have the recipe for a Super Bowl-championship defense. Not every draft was a splash either, with several busts like Alonzo Jackson in ’03 and Ricardo Colclough in ’04.
Over the last few years, there has been a youth movement of sorts, as the elder players were phased out, replaced with younger, more-inexperienced players, with a mixed bag of results. Jones has flashed potential, and the same can be said of last year’s top draft pick, Ryan Shazier, while Cortez Allen has struggled. Despite that, all three are being pegged as starters for the 2015 season, and there may be a few picks in this draft who could see starting spots as well.
“Ideally, you’re bringing in a young player who learns the system and doesn’t go through the growing pains,” Cowher told Bouchette. You’d like them to come in and learn to understand the system and its idiosyncrasies. Joey Porter didn’t start day one.”
Neither did Polamalu, as he really didn’t have a big impact right away either. So, to count out or call younger players a bust this early on in their careers is basically allowing impatience to flow to the surface. As Steelers fans, the expectations are for the defense to be the cream of the crop by NFL standards and to see anything but is upsetting. However, Cowher definitely likes the direction the current defense is headed, as pieces begin to fall into place.
“I think they’re very strong down the middle with those two inside linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and Shazier,” he told Bouchette. “Shazier is an every-down player you can rush and do a lot of things with and cover. Those two guys, two No. 1 picks, are the foundation of what Keith Butler is going to work with from there.”
He feels the secondary is in need of retooling , but agrees on one point, and that is the dominance on their offensive side of the ball. With the draft less than a week away, more defensive chess pieces are hopefully headed to the Steel City, so the defense can hold up it’s end of the deal and allow Ben Roethlisberger and company to continue putting up monster numbers.
“They have the ability to be one of the top offenses, so the defense doesn’t have to dominate,” Cowher said.